The Chinese government has carried out a global campaign to disseminate its oppressive internet policies and digital surveillance tools, hosting seminars on cyber censorship with officials from at least three-dozen countries over the past two years, according to a new report.
In its annual study of internet openness, Freedom House, a democracy and human rights watchdog, warned Chinese efforts to spread its "digital authoritarianism" pose a threat to an open internet and the spread of democracy across the world.
Authoritarian governments have justified tighter internet restrictions and reduced privacy protections by contending the policies help counter fake news and data hacks. This pretext has also enabled countries to commit human rights abuses, such as jailing government critics and blocking foreign social media sites.
Freedom House research director Adrian Shahbaz, who authored the report, said China is working to create a network of countries that will impose its internet censorship model. Since early 2017, Chinese officials have led weeks-long seminars on censorship and surveillance with representatives from 35 of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House. Government officials representing countries from the Middle East and Southeast Asia were most prevalent at these sessions.
"Beijing has been on a clear charm offensive to woo government officials and media elites," Shahbaz told Reuters. "Officials in Beijing hope to cultivate allies to follow its lead on global internet policy."
So far, the campaign has worked. Soon after a Chinese training in April 2017, Vietnam imposed a cyber security law that closely mimicked Beijing's. Meetings with Chinese officials also preceded the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Uganda and Tanzania over the past year.
Beijing's technology sector has also helped diminish internet freedom around the world. Chinese tech companies have supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to several governments with poor human rights records, which could benefit Chinese intelligence services as well as repressive local authorities, the report said.
Chinese firms, including Huawei, have installed internet and mobile network equipment in at least 38 of the tracked countries and have provided artificial intelligence and facial recognition tools to governments in 18 of the countries.
Shahbaz warns that as more of the world's critical telecommunications infrastructure is built by Beijing, global data may become more accessible to Chinese intelligence agencies through both legal and illegal means.
Overall, the report found that internet freedom across the globe declined for the eighth consecutive year, including in the United States. Even so, the United States maintained its "free" status and ranked 22nd among the 100 countries ranked.